A complex, clever, nail-biting race on a dry Shanghai International Circuit brought the F1 season’s first part to a close with terrific racing and laps upon laps of drama. But was it just a bit too dramatic? Warning: spoilers.
After two of the season’s early flyaway races, things were looking brilliant for Red Bull and downbeat for everyone who enjoys hard-fought seasons. Back-to-back victories by a seemingly untouchable Sebastian Vettel turned Grands Prix into races for second. And it was time to wonder when this once-upstart team would begin to flirt with hubris.
We didn’t have to wait long. For qualifying in Shanghai, Red Bull sent out Mark Webber on the slower, hard tires in a car with broken KERS, thinking that Adrian Newey’s sublime aerodynamics would negate the need for both the extra grip and the 80 extra horsepower everyone else had. It didn’t. Webber couldn’t make it out of the bottom third of qualifying, slotting himself 18th on the grid in company several seconds slower. Red Bull’s vulpine team principal Christian Horner at least admitted his mistake after his Australian driver was left to run with the Virgins and the HRT’s. His other car? In a typical display of Vettel dominance, he broke the qualifying lap record for pole even with a mistake in the last corner. “Too easy!” as Lewis Hamilton put it after qualifying.
Shanghai is one of the new Tilke circuits, on the calendar since 2004. It’s partly designed to look good from above, but it’s not as bad as the dead-flat Gulf circuits, mostly because of the frequent chance of rain on China’s east coast. Last year, Jenson Button won his last Grand Prix here with some clever wet-weather driving. This year, he qualified his McLaren second and beat Sebastian Vettel off the line like a dragster on rocket fuel. Vettel had not been his usual robot-calm self before the race and he struggled with revs as the race kicked off. He soon had other things to worry about. Driving like the maniac he is, Lewis Hamilton beat him into the first corner, leaving him in an ignominious fight for third with Nico Rosberg. He got out clean and the race was underway.
For all of McLaren’s splendid qualifying—Button second, Hamilton third—and their first lap heroics, it didn’t initially look like it was going to be McLaren’s race. Jenson Button pitted a lap later than he was supposed to, and when he did, he parked his car right in the middle of Red Bull’s pits (above). Pouncing on his error, Sebastian Vettel overtook him in the pitlane.
The race was now down to a question of tire strategy, still very much a game of trial and error with the new Pirellis: Make three pit stops and be on fresh rubber for more laps, or save the 20+ seconds of a third pit stop and try to make the tires work for longer stints? A hint was offered by the way this year’s tires degrade: When they go, they tend to go very fast, leaving a car with suddenly reduced grip, and exposed to attack.
The man who did the attacking in Shanghai was Lewis Hamilton. Not that it was apparent before the race: his engine flooded in the garage with a few minutes before the start, kicking off a mad scramble with paper towels and screwdrivers, until the McLaren team fixed the car enough to send it out on to the grid, where they finished the job. From that point on, the 2008 world champion was all set. After two unpleasant races, with an extra set of soft tires saved up from qualifying, he got on a three-stop strategy, and went on an attacking spree. For a while, it looked like entertaining fireworks for second place. He passed a number of cars, including his teammate Jenson Button’s. Then, as Sebastian Vettel was leading the race with a broken radio, broken KERS, and losing grip on his two-stop strategy, Hamilton’s game suddenly turned into something we haven’t seen all season: a move for the lead. In his slowing Red Bull, Vettel fought off the surging McLaren for two laps, then Hamilton rocketed past him in a great KERS-boosted left hook. He never let up, won his first Grand Prix since Spa last September, screamed into his helmet mike, then stood in the room behind the podium, tears streaming down his face. He was a fabulous display of a strategy benefitting his raw aggression. It was a champion’s drive.
Hamilton may have driven a memorable race, but it was Mark Webber who impressed even more. From 18th on the grid, after a slow first stint on hard tires, he switched to soft tires on a three-stop strategy, and never looked back. He went through the field like butter, kicking up great plumes of dust as he sped past cars on the dirty side of the track (right), passing cars down to the penultimate lap, until Jenson Button, running third, was told on his radio to “be aware of Webber.” He may have been aware of him, but there was no stopping Mark Webber on this day. He took Button’s podium place with a few corners to go, gaining a sensational 15 places to finish third from 18th.
Like Vettel, both Ferraris were on two-stop strategies, and both suffered: Massa finished 6th, Alonso 7th. Mercedes were on three stops, but they were still off the pace: Rosberg finished 5th, Schumacher 8th. After two successive podiums, the Renaults were down in the field in Shanghai, finishing 9th (Petrov) and 12th (Heidfeld). The most interesting midfield development was down in the lower half: in only their second season since starting from scratch, Heikki Kovalainen beat a Sauber and a Williams in his Lotus without the help of rain or accidents.
With the season’s first part over, lingering doubts remain about the wisdom of the new rules. When you add them all up, they are heavily skewed towards offense. KERS gives a boost to an attacking car. The movable rear wing, with the ridiculous, contrived regulations about its usage, is a blunt weapon that’s basically impossible to defend against. The new tires, with their rapid falloff in grip, tend to make otherwise good cars and drivers suddenly exposed and vulnerable. What you have is a game where it’s mostly impossible to defend—and defense against overtaking moves can be just as complex, clever, and nail-biting as the overtakes themselves.
This, of course, all leads to a great number of overtakes. There were so many in Shanghai, you could barely keep track of who passed whom. And there’s the problem: most of them weren’t particularly interesting. They felt inevitable, videogame-like, manufactured. And as Formula One enters a break of three weeks before the season’s European session, set to kick off in Istanbul on May 8, I cannot help but wonder if, in the quest for more TV-friendly racing, the FIA didn’t damage in a terrible way the elegance and balance of Formula One.
Photography by Mark Thompson/Getty Images, Clive Mason/Getty Images, and Paul Gilham/Getty Images. Gallery curated by Natalie Polgar. Illustrations by Peter Orosz.